Confronting the Sadrists: The Issue of State and Militia in Iraq

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 9

Muqtada al-Sadr

On April 26, Iraqi Shiite leader Muqtada al-Sadr stood down from his threat to wage an all-out war against the Iraqi government and the coalition. A week before, the anti-American cleric had issued a statement threatening to declare an open war if the security crackdown by the Iraqi and U.S. forces against his loyalists was not called off. Al-Sadr said that he was giving a final warning to the Shiite-led Iraqi government to “take the path of peace and stop violence against its own people.” Al-Sadr’s statement went on: “If [the Iraqi government] does not stop the militias that have infiltrated the government, then we will declare a war until liberation” (al-Jazeera, April 19).

The statement was read out in the mosques of Sadr City, a largely Shiite district of Baghdad. There were calls for jihad against the U.S. forces and calls for the Iraqi government to release detainees and end the siege on the poor district of eastern Baghdad. Sadr City is populated by more than two million people and is a main stronghold of Muqtada’s Jaysh al-Mahdi militia (JaM).

Neither the Iraqi government of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki nor the U.S. forces showed any intention of submitting to al-Sadr’s threat. The Iraqi-American joint operations continued, with over 1,070 people killed in Iraq in April, most of them in the violence between Shiite militias and government/Coalition forces (AFP, April 30).

Major General Rick Lynch, the commander of the U.S. Army in central Iraq, threatened to hit back if al-Sadr launched war: “If Sadr and Jaysh al-Mahdi become very aggressive, we have got enough combat force to take the fight to the enemy.” General Lynch also called on al-Sadr to play a positive role: “I hope Muqtada al-Sadr continues to depress violence and not encourage it” (Kuwait Times, April 21). Al-Sadr, currently pursuing theological studies in the Iranian city of Qom, made his open war threat while his followers’ strongholds in southern Iraq were falling and Sadr City and other Shiite neighborhoods in Baghdad were under military pressure.

On February 22, al-Sadr renewed the six-month suspension of JaM activities. The suspension was initially imposed by al-Sadr after inter-communal clashes during a religious festival in the holy Shiite city of Karbala were blamed on the JaM. The decision to renew the suspension was not opposed but many figures from al-Sadr’s movement were ready to end the ceasefire as they claimed they were increasingly targeted by government forces.

Days after this decision, al-Sadr announced that he had retired and admitted that he had failed to achieve his main goals: “What made me retire is the continuing presence of the occupation… I have succeeded neither in liberating Iraq nor in making it an Islamic society; it might be my dereliction, it could be society’s or it could be both…..Many of those who were close to me have left me for worldly reasons, and a dominant independent trend was one of the secondary reasons behind my isolation” (al-Sharq al-Awsat, March 8). Al-Sadr also revealed that he was thinking seriously of reconstructing his movement but did not clarify how he would do so while isolated in Qom. He indicated that he had undertaken advanced religious studies to become a senior Shiite cleric (ayatollah), which will give him great spiritual and institutional influence (see Terrorism Monitor, February 7).

The Assault of the Nights

Basra is the second largest city in Iraq. Being the only Iraqi port and enjoying a rich oil-producing industry, it became the scene of a power struggle among the various Shiite militias and factions after the invasion. By the end of 2007 the British Army handed over security responsibilities to the Iraqi government.

On March 25 al-Maliki himself was in Basra, where he launched “The Assault of the Nights,” a security operation intended to disarm the illegal militias. It was clear that the JaM was the main target. On the threshold of the operation, the main powers in Basra, in addition to the JaM, were the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI), led by Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, and al-Fadhila (Islamic Virtue Party), led by Ayatollah Muhammad al-Yaqubi. The influential mayor of Basra, Muhammad al-Walili, is a member of al-Fadhila Party.

The ISCI is the main rival of al-Sadr’s movement in Shiite Iraq. Thousands of members of the Badr Organization—the military wing of the ISCI—have joined Iraqi government forces in post-invasion Iraq, especially when Bayan Jabur Solagh, a senior member of the ISCI, was Minister of the Interior (May 2005 – June 2006). The ISCI and the Badr Organization also influence other affiliated armed groups. The ISCI currently dominates the provincial councils in central and southern Iraq as most Sadrists boycotted the previous election in January 2005.

After the Operation

The fighting in Basra stopped when al-Sadr called on his followers to lay down their arms and clear the way for an exchange of prisoners and a cessation of government raids against his followers (see Terrorism Focus, April 1). 600 were killed and 2,000 injured after a week of fighting which rapidly extended from Basra to Baghdad and other parts of central and southern Iraq. Despite the call for a ceasefire, the fighting continued, with mortar and rocket attacks on Baghdad’s “Green Zone.” The JaM was still armed: “We are committed to [al-Sadr’s] orders but we will not hand our weapons over as they are for resisting the occupation,” said Hazim al-Arako, a senior aide of Muqtada (al-Hayat, April 1). The Iraqi and U.S. forces did not release any detainees and kept raiding al-Sadr’s strongholds throughout the country.

Many looked at the operation as a victory for al-Sadr after he had shown that he still had control of his militia. Iran also appeared as another winner as the settlement for the crisis was agreed upon in the Iranian city of Qom, where al-Sadr studies (al-Sharq al-Awsat, April 5). Hundreds of Iraqi soldiers and officers surrendered to the JaM, including some who did so in front of TV cameras. In his testimony before Congress, General David Petraeus, commander of the U.S. Army in Iraq, described the operation as not adequately planned (BBC, April 8).

Muqtada under Pressure

Though al-Maliki could not prove himself a remarkable military leader in the field in Basra, he nevertheless gained political support when he returned to Baghdad. The Political Council for National Security, made up of leading Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish politicians, backed al-Maliki and called on all parties to disband their militias or risk being barred from participating in political life. Al-Maliki had the council’s full support in the campaign against the militias and the outlaws (al-Hayat, April 6). Next al-Maliki presented al-Sadr with a difficult choice: “The decision was made that [the Sadrists] no longer have the right to participate in the political process or take part in the upcoming election unless they end al-Mahdi Army” (CNN, April 7). Moreover the Sunnis decided to rejoin al-Maliki’s government—they withdrew in August 2007—and urged al-Maliki to take action against the Shiite militias they blamed for sectarian killings.

Despite the political progress, the fighting continued. On April 11, Muqtada’s right hand man and brother-in-law, Riyad al-Nuri, was assassinated in Najaf. Al-Sadr called for calm and blamed the “occupier and its tails”—referring to the Americans and the Iraqi government—though al-Nuri might have been killed by his own people (Alalam, April 12). On April 19, the Arab newspaper al-Sharq al-Awsat published a letter allegedly written by al-Nuri asking al-Sadr to purify the movement and disband the JaM; a source close to al-Nuri accused extremists from the movement of the assassination. The head of al-Sadr’s parliamentary bloc neither denied nor confirmed the allegations. No matter who killed al-Nuri, it was a blow to al-Sadr and his followers and it raised the possibility that Muqtada himself might be next. Al-Qaeda’s second-in-command Ayman al-Zawahiri mocked al-Sadr, describing him as a dissembler who was being used by Iranian intelligence (AKI, April 18).

The Iranian ambassador to Iraq, Saeed Kazemi Qomi, denounced the American operation in Sadr City saying that it led to the killing of innocent people, but added that Iran supported the Iraqi government in its operation in southern Iraq. In Sadr City, alleged field commanders from the JaM said that the militia is now unified under the command of al-Sadr. They added that Iran had stopped sending weapons to the JaM but the weapons they already had are sufficient for a year of continuous fighting. For the first time, al-Maliki warned Iran from intervening in Iraq’s internal affairs (al-Arabiya, April 25).

Al-Maliki’s Four Conditions

Al-Maliki set four conditions for the JaM in order to bring an end to the military operations:

• Heavy and medium weapons must be turned in to government security forces;

• The militia must cease interference in state affairs and institutions;

• The militia must cease interference in the army and security forces;

• Wanted individuals must be turned over and lists compiled of those involved in violence (al-Arabiya, April 25).

The next day the U.S. army issued a statement announcing that U.S. and Iraqi forces had taken control of Hay Hiteen, the last stronghold of al-Sadr in Basra. At the same time Iraqi forces backed by U.S. air support were raiding the last stronghold of the JaM in the southern city of al-Kut (BBC, April 26). U.S. forces were barely involved in the opening round of the operation, but by this time they had become heavily involved after some Shiite units proved unreliable in fighting the Shiite militias.

Despite these setbacks, al-Sadr refused to submit to al-Maliki’s conditions (Radio Sawa, April 27), though he did retract his open war threat and called for an end to the bloodshed. In a statement, al-Sadr said that his threat was directed to the occupier—i.e. the U.S.-led Coalition—while calling on Iraqis not to use arms against fellow Iraqis, not to use violence to impose law and not to divide Iraq. Significantly al-Sadr called on the resistance not to use the cities as military operational fields against the occupier (al-Sharq al-Awsat, April 26). It is not clear if al-Sadr meant to make an essential change of his tactics; since the invasion, all JaM battles have been fought inside the cities and residential neighborhoods. As al-Sadr rejected al-Maliki’s four conditions, the Iraqi prime minister responded: “The Iraqi government will not retreat until the JaM and other Sunni groups are disarmed and until al-Qaeda is destroyed.” Al-Maliki accused JaM of using civilians in Sadr City as human shields (BBC, April 30). Baha’a al-Araji, an MP and member of al-Sadr’s movement, suggested the Iraqi presidency act as a mediator and a guarantor between the Sadrists and al-Maliki. This would be preferable to Iran, which hosted the initial peace deal in the beginning of the fighting.

The Crisis Continues

The first days of the anti-JaM operation revealed the poor performance of some Iraqi government units and a lack of coordination with the Coalition forces, demonstrating that any major campaign in the future should be well prepared politically and militarily.

The Iraqi government can bar al-Sadr’s movement from participating in the upcoming provincial election but it cannot change the fact that millions of Iraqis are sincere followers of Muqtada al-Sadr. The cleric might have declined pursuing “open war” at the moment, but he is still capable of waging a popular uprising that would raise the number of casualties on both sides. April became the deadliest month for the U.S. Army in Iraq since September 2007 (BBC, April 30).

The ban on militias has focused on the Sadrists. The peshmerga militias of the two major Kurdish parties and the ISCI Badr Organization have found their way into the Iraqi forces while the poor Shiites who are the raw material of the JAM are still suffering from unemployment and negligence. The same applies to the Sunni fighters of the Awakening movement who have been trying in vain to join the Iraqi forces. A program of rebuilding the Iraqi forces on a base of national loyalty is essential to reduce violence. There may be steps in this direction—al-Maliki recently called for the recruitment of 25,000 Shiite tribesmen to the Iraqi security forces (al-Hayat, April 6). To fight extreme ideologies, the Iraqi government must direct greater efforts and funding to development and reconstruction projects in impoverished Shiite areas; otherwise, the crowded slums will continue to produce extremists and criminals.